Electric Boat engineer drives troop support effort
GROTON, Conn.—When soldiers from the Connecticut National Guard headed out on a mission in Afghanistan, they grabbed the beef jerky from their care packages.
When they ran out of shampoo and soap, they rummaged through the packages and found some.
And when they had free time, they reached for the Sudoku books that were sent with their snacks and toiletries.
The Friends at Electric Boat US Troop Support Group sent hundreds of care packages to the soldiers in the 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment when they served in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2010.
Bill Dodge, an engineer at EB, is the founder and energetic driver of the group.
With this year's shipment to service members overseas for the holidays, the group hit a major milestone - 5,000 care packages weighing more than 48,000 pounds have been mailed to deployed troops from the local area, costing close to $32,000 to ship.
"To keep something like this going, you need a lot of help. A lot of people are happy to step up but without that spark, without that catalyst, it's just not going to work," said Don DiGenova, an engineer at EB. "That's what Bill is. He has been the motivator."
"He's the reason we're all here," added Don Miller, a fleet support logistics specialist.
DiGenova and Miller, along with other EB employees and sailors assigned to subs in the shipyard, took a break from their work Dec. 9 to help serve lunch at a fundraiser for the troop support group in the shipyard's cafeteria.
The proceeds from the food that was sold would later be used to buy items for the care packages and pay for shipping. The employees do all the work for the group in their spare time. The company lets them use the cafeteria to collect donations and use storage space for the boxes before they are shipped.
Many EB employees are veterans and some still serve in the National Guard or Reserves. The troop support group started in 2004 after Marine Corps Reserve Col. Ted Larson, a supervisor at EB, was called to active duty and sent to Camp Taqaddum in Iraq.
Dodge, who lives in Lebanon, organized small potluck lunches in a conference room and used the money to send care packages to Larson. Other employees then asked if he could send packages to their relatives who were overseas, too.
The luncheons eventually grew so large that the group moved to the cafeteria.
"September 11 occurred and the threat from Islamic terrorists became more prevalent in our world," Dodge said. "I wanted to support anybody protecting us from that threat overseas."
Soldiers say thank you
Army Chaplain Brian Converse, the chaplain for the 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment, said the care packages the unit received boosted morale. He was in Afghanistan for both tours.
"They would be happy and overjoyed especially when they saw what was inside," said Converse, who was Dodge's pastor at the Saint Frances of Assisi Parish in Lebanon. "It showed that people back home really cared for them and were willing to sacrifice some of their resources to give, sometimes to people they didn't even know.
"It's tough over there," added Converse, who is now at the Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Gales Ferry. "It's not like you can run down to the store to get something to munch on or a bar soap or something like that."
DiGenova and Miller said that if it hadn't been for Dodge, they probably would have just sent their co-worker, Larson, a few packages.
"It wouldn't have started and gotten to where it was without him," Miller said.
Dodge said it takes a lot of work to collect donations, pack the boxes and ship everything - sometimes the effort is exhausting - but it is all worth it, especially when he gets an e-mail from a soldier who received a care package. When much of the spotlight was on the war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, soldiers in Afghanistan who received packages wrote letters thanking the group for not forgetting about them.
"We know who these folks are," Dodge said. "They are our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers. I think every community should support their local troops."
His father served in the Air Force and his two sisters married airmen. His relatives fought in World War II.
Dodge said the group will continue to support the troops in Afghanistan and here at home now that the war in Iraq has ended.
"They are our heroes in our local communities," he said. "It's truly our responsibility and our obligation to make sure they know we are behind them 110 percent because of the sacrifices they make."